PARKERSBURG - Cuba is locked in a time warp from 53 years ago.
Merrell O'Shea of Vienna learned this on a recent visit to the Caribbean island.
Few Cubans own cars and the ones O'Shea saw were 1940 and '50s models. Oxen-led carts and rickety iron bicycles were the common means of transportation, especially in rural areas, O'Shea said.
"I thought I was in a frozen time zone when we entered the airport in Havana," O'Shea said. "There were no cars newer than 1960 (models)," she said. "Cubans are truly 50 years behind."
American cars and other goods stopped flowing into Cuba when the United States suspended trade after the revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro took over in 1959.
O'Shea participated in an educational program developed by the U.S. State Department to tour Cuba in February. Her group delivered textbooks and school supplies to a grade school and medical supplies, but no prescription drugs, to a hospital.
They visited a cigar factory, a sugar cane plantation, a coffee plantation, a tobacco farm, a seniors' housing facility, the National Hotel and a former home of Ernest Hemingway that is now a museum for tourists. Their tour guide could speak several languages.
Travel to Cuba is prohibited for U.S. citizens except through government-approved programs, O'Shea said. Cuban professionals who have fled to Miami during Castro's communist regime can visit Cuba.
On O'Shea's 35-minute airplane flight from Miami to Havana several people brought along televisions, clothes and appliances for their relatives in Cuba.
Cubans cannot visit their country's tourist areas and are not allowed to mix with the tourists, O'Shea said.
"The government plans out what they can see," she said.
Government employees earn the most money among the local population but must give a large percentage of their earnings to the government, she said.
Despite the widespread poverty, O'Shea found Cubans to be "happy, friendly people." She saw no beggars or homeless people living on the streets, but lots of people who like to play dominoes, sing, dance, talk and smoke.
"With wonderful senses of humor and hospitable like few others, they (Cubans) invite visitors into their cramped homes even if they've nothing to offer them," O'Shea wrote in an email.
O'Shea was told that Cubans love their country, but not the communist government.
The sanitation is bad and tourists are advised not to drink the water. Cubans rent their small houses from the government and obtain food from government stores, she said.
The buildings have beautiful Spanish architecture, but the structures are crumbling, O'Shea said.
"The island is jimmy-rigged and bandaged with duct tape to hold its parts together," she wrote.
A government remodeling program has just started.
The Cuban economy crawls along while the government has embraced tourism as perhaps its best hope to bring money and jobs to Cuba, O'Shea said.
Many Cubans survive with the assistance of opponents of the Castro regime who have fled the country, mainly to Miami, and send money to their relatives, O'Shea was told.
After replacing his brother Fidel as president in 2008, Raul Castro lifted restrictions on Cubans owning TVs, DVD players and computers. He also authorized land grants for private farming, she said.
"In all the homes we visited, you would see a big used TV sent over by their relatives."
Freedom to travel abroad and access to the Internet are still restricted, O'Shea said.
The Havana streets are filled with vendors selling books, souvenirs, cigars, jewelry and art, but you rarely see a policeman, she said. Street musicians entertain the tourists and make money in tips.
Chickens stroll through the restaurants looking for leftovers.
Havana restaurants serve seafood, beans and rice.
Although Cubans receive free health care, most hospitals and pharmacies lack basic supplies, such as aspirin and X-ray plates, she said.
The national university system has produced extremely accomplished professionals in medicine and the sciences, O'Shea said. Literacy rates are above 95 percent, she said.
O'Shea described her trip as "extremely interesting and eye-opening."